Law and Practice Feature: Update from Ciudad Juarez
By Susan Schreiber
CLINIC conducted its fifteenth annual family-based immigration law conference in El Paso on November 12-14, followed by a tour of the US consulate in Ciudad Juarez (CDJ) on November 15. Justin Williamson, Deputy Immigrant Visa (IV) Chief, U.S. Consulate, CDJ, gave a presentation and answered questions from participants. The following unofficial minutes represent some of the highlights of Mr. Williamson’s presentation.
Overview of Workload
Consular officers are responsible for reviewing approximately 500 IV applications per day. The consulate adjudicated 91,000 IV applications in FY 2013, which is below normal levels. In FY 2012 the consulate adjudicated 123,000 IV applications, which represents a 35 percent decrease for 2013. The reasons for the decrease include implementation of the provisional waiver program, expectations about comprehensive immigration reform, and the state of the economy in both the United States and Mexico. Mr. Williamson expects the number of applications to increase in 2014.
Tips for the Visa Applicant
Make sure your client only deals with staff from the Application Support Center (ASC), medical clinic, or officials inside the consular building. No consular personnel are ever located outside the consulate. People will approach your client in the vicinity of the clinic or the consulate trying to offer advice. These people are all scammers trying to take advantage of your client. They will offer to sell fake appointment letters and other documents, to provide assistance with transportation or expedited processing, and will charge outrageous application assistance or photo fees. Scammers will often wear badges and present themselves as consular officials to dupe the applicants. Advise your client to stay in a legitimate hotel near the consulate rather than at a guest house; guest house owners have been known to take the documents from clients and hold them until they pay a fee. If there are questions regarding procedures, there are two information windows available at the consulate.
Review the ASC procedures fully before traveling to the consulate for the appointment, or even before the appointment is made. Each U.S. consular post in Mexico has extensive detailed information on the ASC process that can help your client avoid any surprises when you arrive. Double check to make sure you have your client's correct contact information while in Mexico so you can communicate with each other. Have clients come to the consular interview prepared. Review the immigrant visa pages at the CDJ website: http://ciudadjuarez.usconsulate.gov/immigrant_visas.html. Discuss all potential inadmissibility grounds with your client (e.g., unlawful presence, convictions, deportations) so you can advise him or her of the possible options. If your client has a criminal conviction, the applicant should bring in arrest reports and/or court records. Applicants should be counseled to be forthcoming with all of this information at the interview to set proper expectations of waiver eligibility or timing of potential visa issuance.
Applicants also need to be forthcoming with the panel physician. If the consulate discovers something during the interview – a DUI, drug arrest – that the applicant did not reveal to the doctor, the consular official will send the applicant back for a new medical exam, thus delaying the process. The panel physicians record moles, scars, and tattoos. If the consulate makes a finding of gang membership, it will be based on more than just the presence of tattoos. All of these cases are sent to Headquarters in Washington, DC for a final determination. There is a very low refusal rate and very strict standard for this ground of inadmissibility.
Applicants who have been in the United States or attempted to enter the United States should have a complete written timeline of all entries and exits to facilitate the interview. This information should be consistent with what was stated on the DS-260. Include when they entered the United States, where, how, how many times, how long they stayed, how old were they, when they left, how they left, whether they were deported or voluntarily removed, and when they returned. If the consular officer has questions on the timeline and the applicant is not clear or forthcoming, the officer will issue a request for more documentation or information and will refuse the applicant pursuant to section 221(g). Applicants should consider bringing documents, such as rent receipts, to verify that they were living in Mexico on a given date.
Review the Affidavit of Support carefully to ensure that it matches the income tax returns and that all required documents are attached. Inadequate financial support is the most common reason a case is refused pursuant to 221(g). Make sure the applicant’s joint sponsors are not sponsoring multiple people and failing to disclose this.
Applicants should come with original documents to present to the consulate (birth, death, marriage, adoption, etc.). Lack of documents is often a source for the delay in visa issuance. It is always a good idea to bring copies of documents that have already been submitted, as well as current tax returns. The applicant can request return of the original documents if he or she provides a duplicate copy and the officer verifies and stamps it as a copy.
Set reasonable expectations for how long it will take your client to complete the process and for the consulate to issue the immigrant visa. Generally, applicants with no small children should plan on the process taking at least three days, while applicants with small children (who will need the PPD test results) should plan on it taking at least five days. Delayed medical results due to the need for additional testing, such as TB, can cause a delay. Generally, allow one day for taking the fingerprints by the ASC, another day for the medical exam, and then a third day for IV visa interview. The applicant designates a DHL location for receipt of the visa package, and that location may determine how long it takes to receive the visa. It is possible to be in and out of the consulate on the day of the interview in less than an hour, though sometimes it might take up to four hours. The consulate very rarely does same-day visa issuance, but it may expedite issuance if it is justified, like a medical emergency. After the interview, it could take between two days to a week to receive the visa packet, depending on how long it takes to arrive at the designated DHL location.
Use the CDJ inquiry form to communicate with the consulate. That is on the CDJ website at http://ciudadjuarez.usconsulate.gov/feedback-form.html. Complete the form making sure to include the immigrant visa case number, which starts with either CDJ or MEP. Use only the form to correspond with CDJ unless otherwise instructed. Inquiries that are not received on the form can get buried. Don’t attach anything unless requested. If you have documents you want to send CDJ, just state that you have documents in support of the case and the consulate will request them if they need them. Don’t pose as the visa applicant; the consulate has received legal inquiries where the body of the inquiry states the person is the applicant but the email is from an attorney. Always include the name of the attorney or representative that is on the G-28 in the body of the inquiry. If you have a CSPA concern and you want to confirm eligibility, use the legal inquiry form to confirm that the consulate agrees that your client is eligible. If you need to call the consulate, use these phone numbers: from the U.S.: 703-439-2313; from Mexico: 656-325-6300. If sending by regular mail: American Consulate General, P. O. Box 10545, El Paso, TX 79995. E-mail: email@example.com.
Last year 246 applicants for IVs were determined to be U.S. citizens. An estimated 12 percent of the population in Cd. Juarez is U.S. citizens. So question your client for possible acquired citizenship before applying for an immigrant visa.
The consulate is starting to adjudicate IV applications from persons with approved I-601A waivers. The consulate adjudicated about 100 applications before November, about 200 this month, and is scheduled to adjudicate about 400 in December. Less than five percent of those with approved I-601A approvals have been found inadmissible for other grounds. When an applicant is found inadmissible for another ground of inadmissibility, it is after a team of officers has reviewed the case and verified the analysis. Advise all applicants with approved I-601A’s to remind the adjudicator that the waiver has been approved. Of the 22,634 I-601A’s that have been filed, 16, 902 are designated as processing at CDJ.
If an immigrant visa is refused, and the applicant takes more than a year to resolve the issue, then the applicants will need to provide a new medical report and re-pay the IV fees.
Tour of the Consulate
Approximately 75 participants in the family-based immigration conference visited the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez on November 15. Our tour took us through all the steps an IV applicant follows in the days preceding the appointment, including visits to the following: Servicios Medicos, one of two medical clinics that serve visa applicants at CDJ; the Applicant Support Center (ASC), where applicants come for their photos and biometrics; and the "Sala de Espera" or waiting room, where all visa applicants must report before appearing at the consulate for their visa appointment. We also toured the consulate to see where applicants enter the facility, wait to be called for their appointments, submit their passports and civil documents, and get interviewed by a consular officer. Some highlights from the tour are listed below.
The Servicios Medicos clinic is located about a block away from the consulate entrance and adjacent to the other medical clinic for visa applicants. Visa applicants do not need an appointment for their medical examinations, but they do need an appointment letter and their passports to enter the facility. Note that no medical clinic staff work outside the clinic, so clients should be advised that anyone approaching them outside the clinic who is offering services related to the medical exam is necessarily an imposter. After entering the clinic, visa applicants are photographed and meet with data entry personnel who record basic identification information into their computer files. Applicants are then provided with a bracelet with an identifying bar code, which is scanned to confirm the applicant's identity at each stage of the medical exam. The subsequent exam, which typically takes about an hour and a half, includes an x-ray for those visa applicants age 15 or over, or a TB skin test for younger applicants; a blood draw to screen for syphilis and, at times, for controlled substances and pregnancy; a physical examination; and, where applicable, required vaccinations. Applicants will need to disrobe for the physical examination, and if a parent and child are each reporting for a medical exam, the parent will be examined first in order to be with the child at his or her physical exam. Applicants with any kind of chronic medical condition should be advised to bring medical records and a list of medications they are taking to show to the examining physician. The medical report will note any applicant tattoos, as well as scars, but they are not photographed. Presently, all the Servicios Medicos doctors performing physical examinations are women, and not all are bilingual.
In the first instance, issues related to use of controlled substances and alcohol use, including DUIs, are assessed through the consultation with the doctor performing the physical examination. Advocates may want to caution any visa applicants who speak only English to request an examination by an English-speaking doctor to avoid any miscommunication during the physical examination. Applicants who are viewed as potentially inadmissible based on their disclosures to the examining physician will be referred to the clinic psychologist for a further consultation and may also have to submit to urinalysis. In the event of a finding of inadmissibility due to drug abuse or a disorder with associated harmful behavior (e.g. as a consequence of a DUI history), the applicant needs a year of remission in order to overcome inadmissibility. Applicants need to demonstrate complete abstinence from the illegal drug use or alcohol abuse that triggered the inadmissibility finding to satisfactorily establish remission. The clinic psychologist recommended that applicants participate in some kind of rehabilitation program during this period and, in the case of drug use, also have monthly urine tests taken to show they remained drug-free.
Before departing the clinic, applicants are told when to report back for exam results. At the Servicios Medicos clinic, where exams are performed between 6 and 11 a.m. Monday - Friday, applicants will often be able to receive their medical reports later that afternoon. In cases involving a Class A finding of health-based inadmissibility, the clinic will send the report directly to the consulate. Applicants under the age of 15 who have to take the TB skin test are advised on the consulate website to have their medical exam taken at least four business days before the scheduled consular interview. This is to allow enough time for the test results to be available before the interview.
Applicant Support Center
The ASC is located in the plaza adjacent to the consulate and a few storefronts away from the Sala de Espera. Adjacent businesses also appear to be offering official services related to consular processing, so caution your clients accordingly. Applicants should make their ASC appointment online and can do this before or after the medical exam, but they are advised not to wait until the same day as the consular interview because of the likelihood that the biometrics results will not be available in time for review by the consular officer. The ASC is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday - Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Each visa applicant should bring his/her passport, DS-260 confirmation page, the visa appointment letter, and the ASC appointment. All applicants are photographed; biometrics are taken of applicants age seven and over. Applicants can expect the ASC appointment to be completed within ten minutes.
Sala de Espera
The consulate waiting room, or Sala de Espera, is run by the municipality and staffed by municipal employees. All visa applicants must report here before their consular appointment, and they are then escorted to the consulate entrance in groups based on their appointment time. Applicants who forgot or lost their appointment letters may go to the consulate information window, which opens at 7:30 a.m., to obtain a new one.
The Sala de Espera has lockers for safeguarding items that may not be taken into the Consulate, and it has snacks for purchase, bathrooms, and a safe place for family members to wait while visa applicants attend their interviews. Applicants and family members who believe they have been the victim of a scam or fraud may report this to waiting room staff, who provide the information to local law enforcement.
The first IV interviews are scheduled for 7:15 a.m. Upon entering the consulate, applicants receive a ticket with a four-digit case number and proceed to an outdoor covered waiting area if the interior waiting area is full, or to a waiting area directly inside the consulate. In both waiting areas, large electronic boards flash case numbers that direct applicants to particular numbered windows with the consular officer sitting on the other side. Applicants are first called to a document review window for submission of their passports and civil documents. The applicant then returns to his or her seat to wait to be called to the designated window for the visa interview. If an applicant missed seeing his or her number on the electronic board, the applicant's name and/or case number will be called by loudspeaker if necessary. Currently, there are about 24 officers conducing IV interviews; applicants should be prepared to be at the consulate for at least two hours and possibly as long as three and a half hours. Consular officers are scheduled for up to 30 interviews per day, and in a straightforward case without any apparent inadmissibility issues, the interview may be completed in a few minutes. Consulate officials stressed the importance of preparing applicants to be familiar with the dates of their entries to and exits from the United States so that their interviews are not delayed or their cases placed in administrative processing until the information can be provided. In certain situations where an applicant needs a family member's assistance to provide information requested by the consular officer, the applicant may be provided with a "blue ticket" to exit the consulate and then return to the interview with the family member.
Generally, applicants approved for visa issuance who are waiting in Cd. Juarez should have their visa packets available for pick-up within two-three days. The consulate tries to keep local CBP informed about the number of visas issued so that they are staffed appropriately for visa holders seeking admission at the port of entry.
The Consular Information Unit (CIU) has three staff responding to legal, congressional, and public inquiries. Approximately 1,000 inquires are received monthly, and it currently takes up to ten days to respond to a legal inquiry. Advocates should submit inquiries using the form on the consulate website, and include the applicant's name and case number. It is not necessary to know or include the name of the consular officer who interviewed your client. If you do not receive a response within ten days, you may follow up with a second inquiry.